Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I will never be cool with Asian jokes. Never.

I grew up in Coffeyville, a small town in Southeast Kansas. Being Chinese-American, I stuck out amongst my peers, and as a youth, that's a terrible thing because it puts a huge target on your already insecure back. To grasp an idea of how much my Asian eyes and tan skin contrasted with everyone else's physical appearance, here's a fun fact. According to Wikipedia, the racial population of Coffeyville in 2000 was 75.76% white, 12.12% African-American, and .60% Asian. Yes, that's right. People who looked like me made up less than 1% of the town.

When I was a child, I still remember when kids I didn't know would pull out their eyes or call me "ching chong" or "chink eyes," and when I'd look scared and uncomfortable, they'd bust up laughing, feeding off the excitement of their bullying. These kids were clearly laughing at me, not with me; and their tireless "You eat dogs and cats!" "You can't drive!" "You all look a like!" jokes seemed to blur together. These strangers knew nothing about me, but because of my race, they felt that they had all the verbal ammunition in the world to hurt me.

I remember shielding from my family and friends the bullying I received because I saw my friends were harassed too--for being gay, for being black, for being poor, for being fat, etc etc. All of us were picked on for something, and we all came to the conclusion that if we kept our heads down, then the jerks would leave us alone. Or better yet, we victims would move on one day and never have to deal with our bullies again. After all, they and we were all kids. Nobody knew better then, right?

In college, I continued to face assumptions about me because of my race, but now it was no longer meant to be mean but it still bothered me nonetheless. These tiny aggressions came my way through  digs brought upon by people I barely knew: classmates, teachers, friends of friends. "You're fake Chinese!" "You're a banana! Yellow on the outside and white on the inside!" "Did you not understand the assignment because English is your second language?" (How can I be accused of being wannabe white and yet also so Asian that I couldn't speak English correctly?) However, because these people were not trying to be cruel like my schoolyard bullies, I tried to play off their questions and comments by being cool, accepting. I laughed it off. I even made Asian jokes myself to fit in, but all the while, I avoided making stereotypical jokes about other groups. I knew how shitty it felt, so why would I pay that negativity forward? Yet, despite my own need to be respectful of others, I couldn't help but wonder: why was my race always the punchline? Why was I never treated with the respect and dignity that I gave to other people?

As the years went by, I learned to be more assertive with respecting myself. This was ironic to me because from a young age I could champion various other issues such as women's rights; but when it came to putting my foot down by not laughing or tolerating sophomoric Asian jokes, this proved to be a harder endeavor. After all, I had accepted the jokes before. Why was I so "sensitive" now? As an adult, shouldn't I be more able to relax and  just let things go?

The answer is no. Forcing people to accept things that truly bothers them doesn't mean that they will stop being bothered. It only means that they'll resent the other party, and the offending party won't know they're doing anything wrong so they won't stop. It's a lose-lose. By speaking up, you're starting a conversation. Sometimes the other person is willing to listen; other times, he or she is a dick and tells you to shut up. The latter happened to me recently.

Years ago I worked in an office with comedian Andrew Santino, who later became the star of ABC's Mixology, and according to IMDB, he is in the pilot of CBS's much hyped How I Met Your Mother spin-off How I Met Your Dad. I was one of nearly 15,000 of his Facebook fans until I saw him post a picture of an Asian woman taking a selfie using a selfie stick. The picture was hilarious, but it was the caption that made me cringe. "Check out this oriental...I mean continental breakfast #selfrie." The use of the slur "oriental" bothered me, but it was that combined with the hashtag of "selfrie" that really took this post to another level on the racist scale.

Did he assume this young woman, dining alone in an American restaurant, was not a native English speaker? Because after all, we Asians all cannot pronounce words correctly, right? I mean, that's exactly what my seventh grade bully would convey when he pulled his eyes and bowed at me while saying, "Flied Lice! Flied Lice!" To those who think the image of my seventh grade bully bowing is funny; yes, it kind of is in hindsight because it's so fucking stupid. But that's the point. These tired Asian jokes are so fucking stupid and juvenile that a seventh grader did them first.

Analyzing Santino's action further, this girl appears to be dining alone, not with him. She's not his friend. She's some random "oriental" that he, a celebrity, snapped a secret photo of and then belittled by calling her a racial slur and making fun of her assumed accent to 15,000 people. If that's not cyber bullying, I don't know what else is.
Andrew Santino: "Check out this oriental...I mean continental breakfast #selfrie"
I debated not saying anything because it was his page, therefore it's his house to do anything he wants. Plus, he's a comedian. He's obviously making a joke. I should've just let it slide, right?

But I couldn't. As I age, the more I'm able to understand why stereotypical racial jokes are so bothersome. It's not just that they are mean, but they are disrespecting who a person is at his or her core. What they look like. What their family looks like. Their family's history. Their culture. No matter who you are or what you want to be, your race is part of your identity; and it is something that you cannot change. Ever. When Santino made fun of that girl's vanity, it was funny because she chose to bring a selfie stick into a crowded restaurant. That was her choice. But mocking her race, or someone's sexual identity, or a person's disability, those are things beyond a person's control and therefore below the belt.

After considering the pros and cons of opening myself up to the scorn of a comedian's fanbase, network, or of him himself, I finally posted an even-tempered message: "She's being ridiculous, but was it necessary to use the slur "oriental." That's as mean spirited as calling her a "gook" or a "chink" and I really didn't expect that from you..." Although Santino never responded, one of his fans, Keven Meyer, fairly quickly told me that he'd get me a "warm glass of shut the hell up" and another guy, Afshin Kargar, sarcastically said I "must be fun at parties." I tried to get Meyer and Kargar to explain why they thought Santino's caption's use of the slur was okay, but they didn't respond to my questions either.
And that's the thing, no one but me and a few others seemed bothered by Santino's caption (although I did think it was awesome that the majority of comments by his fans made fun of the girl's action, not her race.) And this Facebook post was nothing compared on the grand scale of the history of Asians being disrespected, only to have their voices dismissed when expressing their frustration. Filmmaker Laurie Tsou shared a story of how surprised she was when a white filmmaker pulled at his eyes when talking to her at a film event. She told him she was offended, and he responded with a lengthy email criticizing her for being upset. Recently in Seattle, a theater group performed The Mikado in yellowface reminiscent of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's; and when an Asian-American writer criticized the production, angry commenters attacked her instead. Gwen Stefani set the trend of a white woman using another race as "cute" props with her Harajuku Girls, and according to Time, these four women were contractually obligated to follow her around and only speak Japanese in public. When Margaret Cho called out Stefani for her Asian "minstrel show," Stefani never apologized, and according to Time, to this day, Stefani continues making money on her line of Harajuku products. Ironically enough, Stefani and her band No Doubt pulled the music video for "Looking Hot," where they portrayed cowboys and Indians, after they were slammed by Native Americans. So what does this message say? That other groups can demand respect, but Asians just have to take it?
Stefani paved the way for white women to use minority women as props. Photo courtesy of MTV
My hope is that we're now in an era where more people will speak up when these aggressions and micro-aggressions occur, not just to Asians but to people in general. After all, respect and kindness should always be fought for; and unoriginal, unspecific, and unfunny stereotypes should no longer be defended and distributed to mass audiences. That crap is not entertainment. It's outdated and lazy and audiences deserve better.

Thus I will continue to not "be fun at parties," as Afshin Kargar said; but I will never shut up like Kever Meyer wanted either.

To further reiterate how  these "jokes" can indeed cross a line, I will leave you with this scene from The Nutty Professor, which is a pretty accurate representation of what it feels like when someone rips you to shreds all in the name of "comedy."

2 comments:

  1. I grew up in Coffeyville, knew you when you were a kid. You are exaggerating the Asian population in Coffeyville when you were growing up. It was nowhere close to 0.6%. Probably a tenth of that. I enjoy your blog. Heep it up.

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